Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Comics Shelfie: John Martz

The return of  comics shelfie sees cartoonist and illustrator John Martz talk us through his impressive book collection (pretty much what you would expect from the person who ran the influential Drawn! blog for 8 years), in addition to picking out three favourites to discuss. Martz won an Ignatz award for his great  Retrofit mini-comic, Gold Star, last year, and is nominated again this year for Destination X, an inter-galactic alien adventure published by Nobrow Press. Next month sees the release of A Cat Named Tim and Other Stories, a comic book aimed at younger readers, as part of Koyama Press's first foray into the children's market. The clear line style is one of my favourites, and Martz is simply one of the best purveyors of the aesthetic: beautifully clean, characterful, and joyous .

For those of you who miss Drawn, Martz has recently begun another blog in similar vein, focusing on the best in art, books, comics, design, illustration, and film: Dept of Research and Development.

Main Shelves

'These are the main shelves in our living room. They aren't organized in any particular manner, though I try to group books by author or subject matter when possible. Art books and comics can make organization tricky since they have such varying sizes. These shelves comprise mostly graphic novels, magazine cartoons, how-to books, and graphic design. I didn't take close-ups of everything, but these are a good sampling:

Growing collection of the Seth-designed Peanuts books, and a few oddities like Young Pillars, a collection of Schulz-drawn cartoons about teenagers and religion.

Plenty of New Yorker collections, particularly Charles Addams, Peter Arno, George Booth, William Steig, Roz Chast.

Seth, Joe Matt, Ivan Brunetti, Jim Woodring, Chester Brown (those bagged comics are a complete set of Yummy Fur).

This row is almost entirely Sempé and Searle. Can't get enough Ronald Searle books.

Popeye, comic strip history, more New Yorker, etc. That Pinocchio book by Winshluss is a favourite.

Animation history. Mostly Warner Bros. and early Disney. The categorization of the books starts to fall apart. Some of things are disparate. The Kliban books are particular faves.

Some design books mixed in with some graphic novels. Special mention: Paul Kirchner's The Bus.

More GNs. That Batman Year One might be the lone Superhero comic on the shelf?

A mix of design books, books about caricature, and of course, more comics.

Euro comics lots of Trondheim, Sfar, Dungeon, Jason, etc.

The bottom shelves house the taller books. Note the Dewey Decimal number on that bound Pogo book, which was a discard from my local library.

More tall ones. Lots of Krazy Kat.

White Bookshelf

This white shelf was my childhood bookshelf, and I've dragged it from apartment to apartment, scalloped edges and all. Fittingly, it stores all my children's books in addition to a variety of other things:

Lots of picture books! Richard Scarry and M. Sasek are both well represented.

The Complete Calvin & Hobbes is the king of the various comic strip reprint books. Shout out to Jim Henson here, too.

A variety of things here. Every collection needs some Tintin.


Some of my sketchbooks, and books that I made or had a part in making. Nestled in there is a 1974 Sears catalogue that makes for great reference material.

I don't have a photo of this entire bookcase since it's in a bit of an awkward location to take photos, but this section has a lot of unread books and books that need to be sorted properly.

The reading pile next to my reading chair. It's getting too big for my liking.

Floppies and Minis

My collection of proper floppy comic books is pretty small, and is limited to the things I collected or amassed in high school. As you can see I wasn't a very discriminating comic book reader. I had a taste for anything that was out of the ordinary, though I did have some Marvel and DC comics that were hand-me-downs from a family friend.

My mini comics and zines full up five boxes. It's a terrible way to store them, since it's not easy to flip through and read them, but what else can you do with a collection of things that are such varying sizes and shapes?

Three Favourites

The three items from my collection that I chose to highlight are all from my childhood. These books were each a significant part of my early education as a young cartoonist.

How to Draw Cartoons by Jack Hamm, 1988

This book was originally published in 1967 under the title Cartooning the Head & Figure. My mom bought me this book when I was a kid in the 80s, and as you can see it's falling apart. I put this book through its paces, and it mightn't be long before the entire thing disintegrates.

It wasn't until many years later that I found out that this guy on the cover isn't Jack Hamm at all, and I've since found an older copy of the book with its original title, which is in far better shape than this cheap reprint.

I devoured how-to-draw books like this as a kid. This one in particular was eye-opening because it wasn't overly prescriptive. In fact, it taught that there were many ways to draw cartoons, many tools, and many styles. It presented much of its information as a catalogue of different body parts and facial expressions and techniques that you could mix and match to build an image with.

MAD Zaps the Human Race by Frank Jacobs, 1984

Like many young cartoonists, I was in love with MAD Magazine. This was a favourite collection when I was younger. MAD collections are usually thematically linked, or are limited to particular features or artists like Don Martin or Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, and this collection seems unusual in that it's not only a collection of a single writer's work, but that the writer, Frank Jacobs, is actually featured on the cover, as drawn by Jack Davis. Frank Jacobs was adept at rhyming verse and song parodies, and I think his work spoke to my inner Weird Al fan.

The book itself was my introduction to the MAD artists who would become some of my favourites: Jack Davis, Sergio Aragonés, Paul Coker Jr., and Mort Drucker. I've since had the pleasure of being published in MAD, and when I visited the MAD offices in New York last year, I was thrilled to look through the archives at some original artwork of these amazing cartoonists.

Hamburger Madness by Jack Ziegler, 1978

When I was a kid, I exhausted my local library's collection of comics, cartoons, and books about drawing. One of the books I repeatedly checked out was this one by New Yorker cartoonist Jack Ziegler. My constant checkouts weren't enough to save this book from being removed from circulation, but I was lucky enough to purchase the book itself when the library discarded it in a summer book sale.

This book held me and wouldn't let go. I think this was due in part because I didn't really get it. I was twelve years old, and I didn't understand many of the jokes and cultural references. But I had a sense that it was funny, and I knew that understanding the humour was not necessary for appreciating the humour. The cartoons were undeniably odd, and that was enough for me. I was at that age when you can discover something that your peers don't know about, and it's life changing, and it becomes something that's just yours.'

A massive thank you to John for his time and participation, and to Joe Decie for making the suggestion and putting us in touch. You can view all the previous installments of Comics Shelfie here. Next installment will be up in a fortnight.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014


Hey guys. Just to let you know I'm taking a break from comics writing for (hopefully) a short while. I started this because I love doing it- love reading comics, love writing about them- but it's started to feel more like work, and I feel burnt-out. Back soon, fingers crossed. Thank you all for your support. x

By Seth Fisher

Monday, 11 August 2014

Review: Blacksad Amarillo: sorrow is not an aesthetic choice

Blacksad Amarillo (Blacksad volume 5) by Juan Diaz Canales, Juanjo Guarnido

Published in French by Dargaud, to be published and released in English by Dark Horse on 23rd October 2014

If you've not come across Blacksad before, created by Spanish authors Juan Diaz Canales (writer) and Juanjo Guarnido (illustrator), it is an anthropomorphic noir series, set in 1950's America, centering around eponymous trench-coated private investigator, John Blacksad, a lithe, witty and cynical cat. Wildly popular France since the release of the first book in 2000, it's equally loved around the world, having been translated in 23 languages, with Dark Horse doing the honours for English reading audiences. This fifth and latest volume, Amarillo, was published in its original French in November last year, with October seeing the release of the English language edition. It's a few rungs above, thanks to Canales' writing: mixing up the mystery with social issues at the time, but largely due to Juanjo Guarnido's breathtaking watercoloured art and the superb manner in which he amalgamates human and animal characteristics.

Amarillo opens with a fight over literary merit. Beat poet Abraham Greenberg (modelled on Allen Ginsberg, and who made who made a brief appearance in book 4: A Silent Hell) is cruelly railing to his novelist friend Chad about the book Chad is working on, warning him against editors and success- telling him to write from a place of courage, ranting about writing as blinding epiphanies and enlightenment, as he sets his own sheaf of papers alight and tosses them away. Blacksad, meanwhile, is still in New Orleans, at the airport seeing off Weekly, his journalist friend (I'm still all here for the Weekly/Blacksad pairing up- would love to see a full-on duo adventure), broke, and weary of always seeing the worst of people, and looking to take a break. A chance encounter sees him hired to drive and deliver a Cadillac Eldorado to Tulsa, Oklahoma. It's the perfect job, at the perfect time, but Blacksad being Blacksad, the inevitability of finding himself once more mired is near unavoidable.

On superficial reading, Amarillo is lighter and brighter in tone and subject; this is a Blacksad-getting-embroiled-in-trouble-on-holiday adventure. It's a road trip comic, designed to showcase the associated elements: the open road, the changes from setting to setting, meeting characters in place to place, moving from cool vehicle to cool vehicle. It feels breezy, like a summer book; Guarnido works his magic with breathless, airy, spaces- taking it away with panoramic wide shots that incorporate a lot of sky. Watch the way he uses sky here to manipulate tome and mood a clear blue with romantic cloud, a streak of golden yellow, a sublime purple/orange/pink concocted sunset as a train chugs past on a bridge. There is nobody  in comics who renders light better. I wondered and wondered what was different here- there was something I knew I was missing, but couldn't pinpoint -and then it came to me: Blacksad's trench-coat- it's missing. Replaced with a lovely, natty jewel green suit, it's as visible a signifier of off-duty you're going to find.

Blacksad's undoing, ironically, comes from a mis-judged good deed: intervening on the behalf of Abraham and Chad to stop a group of bikers from whom they had been attempting to steal a motor-bike. While he's trying to calm things down, the duo see fit to make off with the Cadillac he's supposed to be delivering, and so a journey of follow-that-crime-spree and hitching begins. An unlikely partnership is formed when he meets Neal the lawyer, also searching for Chad for different reasons, and the stand-out character here, providing both comedic relief and surprising dramatic depth. Canales does an exceptional job of writing him, so that he grows fuller as you read, revealing layers of more attributes, so that you find yourself almost unknowingly attached. There's a great scene where they've hitched a ride with a racist parrot and Neal is sandwiched between the two; the parrot prattling obliviously on, ending each sentence with 'no offense meant', Blacksad fuming.

But at the center of Amarillo and its tragedies is Chad and Abraham's debate: how meaningful is life if it is not experienced fully- its sorrows, dangers, and ugliness embraced. Is that what it means to live- to try to experience as much as possible as thoroughly as possible? Abe is convinced life is to be exploited as the only way in which to create true and pure art; that in order to write truthfully, with verve, you must have experienced trouble and extremities, and Chad, while not of the same thought, ends up inadvertently being driven to make choices that see him live out his friend's philosophies. And yet deeper trouble, more problems don't bring inspiration, but even more turmoil and discontent, although he seems to determined to continue in the same vein. A fed-up Neal gives him a lovely little speech: 'live, laugh, love, dance....don't take pleasure in misfortune as if it was a wonderful aesthetic category.' Bad things happen, awful things happen, we deal with them in our own way in our time, but to glorify pain is a dis-service to life, as imperfect as it may be.

It has never occurred to me that some readers might not like anthropomorphism as a presentation; I have never questioned it- it's just another way of telling a story, but it's perhaps worthwhile to consider why it is used and what function it adds. In previous Blacksad books, I would argue it has softened otherwise starkly presented graphic scenes: racism, lynchings, etc. I don't think you need a reason for anthropomorphism in comics other than it can be visually interesting and arresting- and it's certainly that here- but it also presents material in a different, more digestable, context, in the same way that a lot of sci-fi neutralises socio-political themes by setting them in strange, future-flung lands. Ultimately in the act of making something unhuman human, much like androids and aliens, it manages to be even more so. In it, we recognise both our inadequacies and our potential.

At times, there is so much lavish praise and anticipation around a book or series, that the obstinate, perhaps natural urge, is to push-back and question: is this really as brilliant as people say? Blacksad is not without  its flaws: rounded female characters are still very thin on the ground: the two making an appearance in this volume are Blacksad's sister, Donna, who appears briefly when he visits to borrow her car- a working single mum, but Luanne, the runaway circus belle is once again reduced to love interest in service of plot. There is issue, too, with the narrative- it gets overstuffed with too many characters and plot threads- the 2 cops following Blacksad, and some of the circus folk are superfluous- the removal of which would have made a much leaner, focused tale, in keeping with the streamlined tone.

Despite these faults, Guarnido and Canales' mastery is such that Blacksad remains nothing short of engrossing, as immersive a reading experience you will encounter. As much as I appreciated A Silent Hell, the change of pace here was the right decision, reinforcing the duo's command of the gorgeous crime caper and the coolest cat around, ensuring that a new Blacksad book remains an event.

(with thanks to Oliver Pickles, who translated the book from French so I could read it)